Someone said to me not long ago that Indian people should not be Indian people anymore, that we should be "just like everybody else."
Normally a comment like this would get a considerable thunderous fallout out of me, but I only sat in stunned silence at the source and the unexpectedness of what fell on my ears. Iíve been gnawing and brooding over it for months now, trying to determine exactly how I feel about that comment, how it resonates when I thump it with my finger and listen to its vibrations close to my ear.
Letís forget the obvious for a moment, the simple, logical and indisputable answer:
We didnít ask to be like everybody else.
Thatís ancient history, but it is the principle that defines Native sovereignty today: The United States finally recognized the illegal actions of overthrowing our nations and have made an effort Ė thin as it may be Ė to rectify that wrong. Because thatís what we were: Independent nations. Not separate blood lines. Europeans divided us by "blood" but we were no more different in "blood" as Germans are from Spaniards are from French. We defined ourselves essentially the same way we do as Louisianians, Californians, Georgians. There is no distinction in "blood" between Cheyenne and Lakota and Chitimacha, of course. Itís political subdivisions and members were adopted and moved from one to another all the time. Forget blood. Thatís a myth perpetuated by Europeans, Hollywood and unfortunately adopted by indigenous people to fit into artificial quotas and allotments.
Are we like Germany, Japan and Italy? No, I donít think so, because those nations were allowed to remain sovereign after losing a war to the United States. So that canít be the answer. The United States is Ė at least in appearance Ė going through great pains to make Afghanistan and Iraq sovereign nations.
It might be then, that we as the indigenous people of the Americas, north and south, are not as worthy as Germans, Italians, Japanese, Afghans and Iraqis? Perhaps itís a matter of location, though. Maybe itís because Native nations exist within the boundaries of the United States proper.
You see, the comment "like everybody else" is what started all the trouble in the first place. Letís call it like it is, friends and neighbors. Truths are sometimes ugly and hard to swallow, which is why we bury them out of sight and mind, and they donít end up in history books or school texts for our elementary kids: The ugly truth of this matter, is that both Catholic and Protestant intention alike toward the indigenous people of the Americas was largely that they become "like everybody else." Often it was a genuine, if oddly misguided, desire to "save the souls of the pagans" but more often than not it was a means of dehumanization for the purpose of possession. If we refused to take on Western belief structure, we could therefore be deemed less than human and ineligible to any of the rights of our betters. For instance, in the papal bull of 1452, even before North America was visited for the first time, loyal Christians was ordered to "capture, vanquish, and subdue the saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ," to "put them into perpetual slavery," and "to take all their possessions and property."
There are well-documented cases of these edicts being read aloud to the indigenous people of the Americas from the decks of sailing ships anchored a mile offshore where no one could have even heard their demands, no matter how ridiculous.
If youíre wondering what this has to do with the United States of America today, which wouldnít exist until 1776, note that in 1823 the "doctrine of discovery" was adopted into law by the U.S. Supreme Court, acknowleding that the infant nation had "inherited" the "right of discovery" and all its plunder, from its forebears. The U.S. and Chief Justice John Marshall therefore ratified the entire nearly 300 years of policy on the indigenous populations set into precedence by Spain, France, Britain and Rome.
Like everybody else? My people were building cities at Poverty Point when Greek civilization was pulling itself to its knees out of its dark ages. Like everybody else? My people built Cahokia and Teotihuacan, cities that dwarfed anything in Europe at the time and whose cultures were mightier and had more far-reaching control and influence than imperial Rome.
When the Taino people of Hispanolia refused to be the good, civilized Western-like subjects of the Crown like Christopher Columbus required of them, he threw them in chains and made them dig gold out of the mountains, and when they refused to work, he lined them up and shot, strangled, stabbed or set war dogs upon them. In Columbusí estimation, then, if the Taino were not "like everybody else" they were not being murdered at all, they were simply being punished by horrible, grisly means of death.
Those deeds can be repeated a thousand, ten thousand times over the centuries. In an effort to make Native America "like everybody else" the United States forcibly removed Indian children from their homes and parents and sent them to boarding schools in places like Carlisle, Penn., where their hair was cut, they were dressed in non-Native clothing and beaten if they spoke a word of their languages. "Like everybody else" apparently does not include prohibition of kidnapping. The United States thought Indians was enough removed from being "like everybody else" that they forced the Cherokee to the Trail of Tears, where every other member of that forced march died.
Me? I might seem as close to "like everybody else" as you can get, really. I donít look very Native, thanks to those predominant white genes in my blood. In fact, Iím more white-blooded than I am red-blooded, pardon the pun. Everybody else insists on asking me "how much Indian" I am, instead of asking me how I was raised and what is in my heart. No one asks an African-American or an Asian-American how much they are. No one asks a tawny-skinned, black-hair-in-braids Indian man with high cheekbones and a long, sharp nose "how much Indian" he is, though he might answer that he was raised in New York City and never stepped foot on a reservation or ate a piece of fry bread in his life.
What would be expected of me, to be "like everybody else?" I just canít figure it out. Should I forget that 500 years ago my ancestors numbered in the tens of thousands and occupied a third of what would become the State of Louisiana? Should I forget that an ancestor of mine named Soulier Rouge was a mercenary soldier who fought on behalf of many Native nations in Louisiana and beyond against becoming "like everybody else"? Should I forget, then, that an ancestor named Long Panther journeyed to make peace with Gov. Beinville to end more than a decade of hostilities in an agreement that guaranteed Sheti imasha would remain who they were? Should I, then, forget that my grandfather was sent to that school in Carlisle and they tried to make him "like everybody else" with scissors and belts and canes?
Maybe youíre thinking right now, "Thatís all in the past," and maybe youíre quite right. Itís all my past, and nobodyís going to take any of it away by making me "like everybody else." Ever.
Who are "everybody else," anyway? Are we supposed to be cookie-cutter beings? Are we all the same, share the same beliefs? What is "everybody else?" You are all different. You are Republicans and Democrats. You are white and black and yellow and red and brown. You are conservatives and liberals, you are Christians and Jews, Muslims and Buddhists.
Who are you, that I should be "just like everybody else?" Many of you donít even know who you are, where you came from, often donít even care. I do.
But we all know that you are referring to sovereignty, of course. Thatís the thing. The right to govern ourselves, insofar as Congress says we can. And in the final examination, it is about gaming. Casinos and poker and slot machines. It makes some people mad. If, perhaps, we had opened a manufacturing plant that makes hubcaps for GM, would there still be as much opposition to Native nations being sovereign? Would it still be such an issue that we be "like everybody else," whatever that is?
Weíre fine and cute when weíre selling trinkets at pow-wows, dancing to oooh and ahhh over, and rudely pointed at with fingers. But soveriegnty? Didnít Andrew Jackson take care of that little annoyance?
I am not the least bit sorry. I am who I am. I am who I was raised to be, and thatís an Indian man, a Cajun man, a Louisianian and an American. You canít take any single piece out of me and leave me whole, anymore than I can take any piece of out of you and youíd remain "like everybody else." Blood the same as mine spilled to make sure I would be who I am. Treaties were signed, broken and wars fought to make sure I am who I am, and maybe my skin is not brown my hair is not black. Maybe my cheekbones are not as chiseled as some glorified Hollywood expectations seem to require, my nose not as sharp, thin and hawklike as some art gallery prints might infer.
But what I am is a descendant of Long Panther, who shook hands with and smoked the calumet with Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville; I am a descendant of Soulier Rouge, given the name "red shoes" by a young white boy whom he called friend, and who struck terror into the hearts and souls of those who tried to make his people "like everybody else"; I am a great-grandson of Delphine Arnis, last Chitimacha-blood medicine woman; I am a descendant of Emile Anatole Stouff, last bloodline chief of the tribe, who passed it on to my father just briefly, and Nicholas Leonard Stouff then became first elected tribal chairman.
And finally, at last, I am Sheti imasha, defined by my culture, by my upbringing, not by fractions, Hollywood stereotypes, Iron Eyes Cody (an Italian from Kaplan) playing Indian on horseback crying over litter on the side of a highway, or any certification, membership roll or the shape of my face, or most of all, anyoneís perceptions, inclinations, comprehensions, disdains, appreciations, admirations, condemnations or accusations.
After all, by what right, God-given, natural or otherwise, does any other person decide who or what I should be? Suggesting it in the here-and-now only serves to justify, support and vilify the actions of those who wielded the shackles, swords and garrotes of the past.